Charles Bierbauer On The Costs Of Foreign And War Reporting

(Univ. South Carolina)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we turned to Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina. Bierbauer is also a former CNN and ABC News correspondent who spent more than a decade as based in Belgrade, Vienna, Bonn, London and Moscow. Below, he discusses the issues that arise for news organizations when it comes to the cost of covering wars and foreign news. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Charles:

As journalists, we are accustomed to counting the costs of war—lives lost, bombs dropped, ground taken and lost, weapons caches found (or not). It's all part of the reporting.

As news organizations, we are never accustomed to counting our own costs, as CBS is now doing. James Brolan and Paul Douglas killed in Iraq. Kimberly Dozier seriously wounded. As though it were CBS's turn to feel the personal pain of covering the war, ABC having last borne the cost when Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were casualties. NBC lost David Bloom during the 2003 offensive into Iraq.

Journalists run many of the same risks as the soldiers they cover. Some risks -- particularly kidnapping and the prospect of humiliation, torture and grotesque death -- are more likely to befall journalists or aid workers outside the military's protective, though porous, envelope.

This is nothing new. Over the years, friends and colleagues have been lost in their distant pursuit of news and truths. Dave Kaplan of ABC News in Bosnia, Jim Stewart of ABC News in Nicaragua, Joe Alex Morris of the Los Angeles Times in Iran. One to a sniper, one to a murderous thug, one to a ricocheting bullet.

Is the war correspondent a subset of the foreign correspondent or a breed of its own? It depends. There's overlap, of course. There are differences. Some of us are drawn to the urgency and high stakes of conflict. Others are intrigued by the intricacies of diplomacy and international commerce, each with its own high stakes.

When I was asked to contribute this piece to CBS's Public Eye, I was embarking on a 15-day trip visiting journalism and communications programs at universities in China and Korea. I may now be an academic, but I like to think I've not lost the journalist's eye.

In China these days, you can stay in a Hilton or a Sheraton and catch CNN, Fox, MSNBC, BBC, Deutsche Welle, CCTV9 (China's English service), among others. The variety is itself a marked change from China of not too many years ago. The variety dissipates as you stray off cable and out of tourist-oriented hotels. At the guest house of the university in Shanghai where I stayed, the CNN and Fox feeds were conspicuously blocked.

These networks carried a substantial amount of international business news -- not surprising when you consider China's aggressive commercial boom. But it was largely studio-based analysis of the day's market movements, not much field reporting.

The story that drew on-scene coverage was a simmering volcano. Where was it—Malaysia? Indonesia? It seemed urgent at the time. A former colleague with CNN in Hong Kong told me the network was debating how long to maintain its costly coverage for intermittent puffs of smoke.

Meanwhile, a typhoon was swirling toward Hong Kong. That caught my attention, but it was local news.

There are compelling stories around the world for journalists to write home about -- always have been, always will be. But I don't see much of it. Barry Peterson may do yeoman work covering China from a Tokyo base. Allen Pizzey roams widely from Rome. But none of the networks cover the world the way they used to. When I moved from Moscow to Bonn for ABC in 1980, it was with the expectation of digging ever deeper into the Cold War issues still dividing East and West. Within months, ABC began talking about moving the bureau to Frankfurt, closer to the airport and parachute journalism.

Tom Fenton, the longtime CBS chief foreign correspondent, raised this concern in his book a few years ago. I know the costs of maintaining foreign bureaus are considerable and the temptations to just grab video from a satellite feed and write to it are great. But I'm with Tom.

Peter Jennings, a foreign correspondent before he became ABC's anchor, was a great advocate for "news from overseas." In the 1970s, the networks ran as much as 45% foreign news. By 1995, the proportion was in the teens.

The war in Iraq is a dichotomy. It can have a critical impact on the region, already destabilized. But it's also a home-based story of politics and sacrifice. We cover it as much for the domestic politics as for the geopolitics, and at great cost.

Yet the media—networks, newspapers, wires, Web—should not shirk the cost of covering as much of the rest of the world as is feasible. The question that should make journalists cringe is "How come no one warned us about that?"